This Positive Life: An Interview With Brenda Chambers
August 24, 2010
Welcome to This Positive Life Video Series! We have with us, Brenda Chambers, the HIV Program Specialist at the Indian Walk-In Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Brenda Chambers, 47, embodies the term "survivor." This mother of four, recovering crystal meth addict and sexual abuse survivor did not allow for her 2003 HIV diagnosis to stop her from living. In fact, she used it as a means to stop using drugs, regain custody of her children and become an AIDS activist.
When was the first time you found out that you had HIV?
Well, it was July 1, 2003. Someone had given me a ride from my boyfriend's house. And they had asked me, "Well, did you use condoms with him?" And I'm like, "No." And he said, "Well, I didn't either, and guess what? I have HIV." So, he didn't disclose that my boyfriend had HIV; he just disclosed that he did, and that he was having sex with my boyfriend.
So this was a man who was having sex with another man, who you thought was your boyfriend.
Did you think he was monogamous?
I did, because he told me he was.
Where did you go get tested?
Salt Lake Valley Health Department actually was doing testing in the jail, because I was a substance abuser for years. I never used injection drugs, so I did not get it from injection drugs. I only was with the guys that I was with at that time, and had been with the guy for two-and-a-half years.
And what sort of substances were you using?
Mostly alcohol, but towards the end there it was meth. Meth kind of kicked my butt. But I've been clean from meth since just before my diagnosis.
What year was this?
And so what was the first thing that you did after you found out that you had HIV?
"It wasn't until I went to an HIV-positive women's retreat that I saw positive women, living positively. There was one lady there that was an advocate and she really inspired me. I could see she had had it for 20 years, and she was still out there, fighting. For me, it was very inspirational, because I could see that there is a life beyond being told that you've got HIV."
At first, all I could do is feel sorry for myself. I wrote letters to my family, saying, you know, "This is what's going on. I'm sorry for everything I've done," because I thought I was dying. And I thought that I might never see them.
It wasn't until I went to an HIV-positive women's retreat that I saw positive women, living positively. There was one lady there that was an advocate and she really inspired me. I could see she had had it for 20 years, and she was still out there, fighting. For me, it was very inspirational, because I could see that there is a life beyond being told that you've got HIV.
Were you living with your boyfriend?
No, I lived with my family, and saw him.
Did you ever confront him?
I did that night. But at the time, I was using meth and I was high. And when I asked him, he said, "Oh, no I got tested when my son was born two years ago." But he didn't tell me what the results were, and I didn't ask that.
So he never acknowledged infecting you.
He did, a couple years later. The thing about it is, instead of being angry for a long time about it, someone told me that forgiveness is more about me than it is about the other person. And so it took some work, but I forgave him, and we even talk now.
So what did you know about HIV when you got diagnosed?
"I take my medicine at night, so if there are side effects, I sleep through it. It's amazing because I not only work full time but I'm a half-time student. So I go from around 7:30 in the morning to about 10:30 at night. It doesn't have to stop you from living."
All I knew was I hung around with gay friends for years; so I watched them take a lot of pills and be really sick. And so that was the image that I had in my mind. And even when they wanted me to start meds, I was all freaked out, and e-mailed all the girls from my retreat. And they e-mailed me back, saying, "Now, it's nothing. It's nothing like it used to be."
I found that to be true. My side effects are very minimal. Actually, I take my medicine at night, so if there are side effects, I sleep through it.
It's amazing because I not only work full time but I'm a half-time student. So I go from around 7:30 in the morning to about 10:30 at night. It doesn't have to stop you from living. It actually gave me a new lease on life, because it made me realize that I wanted to be clean and sober so that I would not be existing in a fog. Because that's what I was when I was using substances -- I was just in a fog. I hadn't lived any life. So it wasn't taking a life away from me; it was giving me a life, in a way.
At the time, I didn't even really comprehend that. But I had started in a spiritual path, so I asked for help with dealing with it. Because dealing with anything without the use of drugs and alcohol, I didn't know how to do.
But I had some really good examples of how to stay sober. The lady who came into the jail and did the testing and gave me my results was also there when I got out, and she helped me become an HIV tester and counselor. And that's how I ended up working in the field. She was like, "I think you can get a message out there to women that it doesn't have to be the way it is." And so it started me on this road.
So what's your background? Are you originally from Utah?
I was born in Texas, but my dad and his friends robbed a federal bank, so they went to federal prison, and my mom moved back up here, where her family was. And so I was about 9, I think, maybe 10, when I moved to Utah.
"There was not only substance abuse, there was physical and sexual abuse. That's something I've found that kind of has a little string in a lot of the women that I know that are positive -- that they've had either physical or emotional or sexual abuse in their backgrounds."
So you had a rough childhood.
Yeah. My dad was an alcoholic, and so we were raised in . . . yeah. It was a different kind of an atmosphere. I didn't realize that it was different until later on in life -- that it wasn't a normal way of life. And there was not only substance abuse, there was physical and sexual abuse. That's something I've found that kind of has a little string in a lot of the women that I know that are positive -- that they've had either physical or emotional or sexual abuse in their backgrounds.
Were you sexually abused when you were young?
I was, by several different men.
Were they all relatives?
Some of them were my dad's friends, and some of them were relatives.
And so did you enter therapy?
I did. Well, actually, I went through Odyssey House.
So that's a drug treatment center.
It is. It's a nationwide drug treatment center. And I actually am doing my internship for social work there, so I get to use what I learned to help others.
So you're going to school for social work now?
I am. I am. It was something that, when I was in high school, I wanted to do. But at 16, I had twins, and so after that I was 23 when I had my daughter, and 29 when I had my son. And so I was a full-time mom, a full-time worker. I didn't have time for anything like that. Now that my kids have grown, I get to go back to school and do the things I want to do.
So what happened to your kids during the time that you were using?
I still had them up until about . . . well, I guess it would have been 1998. And they took my son from me, my youngest son. And my daughter had been in and out of foster care, because she kept running away from home. And my oldest son had taken care of all the rest of the kids. So basically, it was him that was the parent. And just recently, he's let me back into his life, which has been really kind of cool, but . . . .
How old is he now?
He's 29, and going through a divorce. I actually moved in with him last month to help him with my grandkids. And so I get a chance to kind of make up for some of the things that he went through as a child.
So it must be great to be with your grandkids.
Oh, yes. I love it. I love it. My grandkids are awesome.
How old are they?
I have one that's 10, one that's seven, one that's almost five -- he's going to school this next year -- one that's four, and one that's three, and one on the way.
Wow. So you have a big family.
I do have a big family.
This article was provided by TheBody.